Rosine Mbakam on Delphine’s Prayers: Interview by Anne Feuillère and Vinnie Ky-Maka
Originally published by Cinergie in October 2021
Translated by Daniella Shreir
Rosine Mbakam arrived in Belgium from Cameroon to study cinema at the Institut Supérieur des Arts (INSAS). By that time, she had already made several documentaries that examine women in their environments and which, due to the emphasis placed on the verbal throughout the creative process, give them back their power. This process is pushed even further in her latest film, Les prières de Delphine (Delphine’s Prayers). Recording her friend’s story, infused with anger and pain, Mbakam paints a moving portrait of a woman who regains her dignity by relating the violence to which she has been subjected. Mbakam’s calm and composition, her discernible softness and great determination is palpable in a directorial process that comes through clearly in each film and involves her freeing herself from the roles assigned to her by a society ingrained with the fissures of domination. If Mbakam’s cinema is confrontational, it is because freeing oneself from these assigned roles means taking a position, existing alongside the complexities of a violent historical reality.
Cinergie: You shot Delphine’s Prayers before your other films. How did it happen that you ended up finishing it last?
Rosine Mbakam: It took me a long time to find the right approach to the film. It was a delicate process. I think I needed to grow as a person in order to grapple with the subtleties of Delphine’s story. I wasn’t able to grasp these or to translate them visually in a way that felt germane at the time of shooting.
C.: How did the film come about?
R.M.: I was preparing to shoot Chez Jolie Coiffure when Delphine asked me to make a film about her.
Delphine knew the salon [the location of Chez Jolie Coiffure] better than I did so I asked her to introduce me to the women working there. It was through her that I met Sabine. I saw Delphine a lot while I was preparing to shoot the film as she lived nearby. I’d visit her to give her updates on my progress.
It was during one of these visits that she asked me if I’d make a film about her. We’d known each other for seven years, we were friends. I told her I had absolutely no desire to make her my subject and she said, “That’s because you don’t know about my life”. So she began to tell her story, which brought together everything that had given me a taste for cinema in the first place; the things I’d wanted to question through cinema. I saw the necessity and the urgency of recording her words. Three days later, we began to shoot.
C.: You’d known Delphine for seven years and she’d never told you about her experiences?
R.B. : No, she hadn’t. Delphine and I arrived in Belgium at the same time. She’d come to live with her husband and I’d come to study at INSAS. One of my professors knew her and introduced us; I think he thought I was a bit lonely. That’s how we became friends. Discovering the reality of life in Europe, she was lonely, too. During the shoot, I remember wondering whether I was worthy of her words, worthy of the trust she was placing in me. It’s not easy to admit that for seven years I’d sensed her suffering without ever questioning it. I was scared of being one of the people who put her in a box, who judged her. I wanted to be the person who didn’t add to that pressure, a non-disturbing presence. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether taking this position was the right thing to do. I hadn’t dared ask any questions. I blamed myself.
C.: How did you work together during the shoot? You often refer to storyboarding. Can you expand on this?
R.M. : When I talk about storyboarding I’m referring to the western conventions of cinema I was taught here: an anticipatory cinema that plans everything in advance, that knows how things will play out, and which tells a protagonist like Delphine what her story will be. Together with Delphine, I tried to deconstruct this by finding a different way of telling her story. I was making this film fresh out of film school and, as a young filmmaker, I was searching for the kind of cinema I wanted to make. As an African woman who had studied at a school where western methods of filmmaking are taught pretty much to the exclusion of all others, what could I do with what I’d learned? Should I reproduce this cinema, with the same consequences on the images of and the stories about Black people like me? Or should I find a way of creating my own? The film isn’t just a portrait of Delphine, it’s a portrait of my way of making films, of my research methods.
C.: The research that crystallises around the verbal…
R.M. : Yeah, it’s a way for this continent that has always been narrated by Europe to reclaim its voice. Since colonisation, Africa has never really had the chance to narrate itself. And when Europe looks at Africa, it always sees it through the prism of colonial domination. By its very definition, cinema is a form of domination. I mean, taking this interview as an example, I am being filmed, the person filming me can see me but I can’t see what they are filming. This is the power dynamic between the filmmaker and the protagonist. The person being filmed is dominated by cinematographic language.
C.: And yet there are several moments at which we’re given the impression that Delphine is guiding the film. The end of the film turns any power imbalance on its head. You are quite literally in Delphine’s hands.
R.M. : How to deal with the power cinema imparts us is the one thing that was never addressed at film school. Filmmakers have long used this power in service of their ego, of their own story, and not in service of the person they’re filming, their situation or their reality.
As for the people I film, it’s about working out together how to make sure this power is distributed equally in a practical sense. In the film about my mother, Les deux visages d’une femme bamiléké, it was about letting her define what cinema was to her. The people I filmed in my community in Cameroon weren’t really aware of the power of cinema. Because they know me and trust me, they entrusted me with their story, their image. But if I were never to question my position, I would be reproducing the same domination that the west has had over my image, my history. I know the harm this does, I can’t reproduce it, I’m looking for methods to eschew it.
As each and every film and protagonist is unique, each and every film I make involves seeking out the appropriate language for the singularity of the person I’m filming. Cinema has become a concept, a product, that remains the same no matter the situation or the person being filmed. This isn’t right because situations are specific, beings are singular. Every time I film someone I want to grasp their singularity and find an appropriate language for them. I see this as a nomadic cinema, necessary for our identities which are themselves nomadic. It’s part of human beauty, human difference: we’re changing all the time and cinema must change and adapt to each person.
This is what I’m seeking out every time I make a film.
C.: Besides the value of Delphine’s testimony, the whole process of reclaiming the self through speech is brought into play, and we witness a true metamorphosis. When Delphine starts to make herself up, for example, she is shaping her image, the image of herself she wants to project.
R.M.: The image she wants to take back for herself, rather. What’s been taken from her. I could have said to Delphine: “So can you come and sit here” or, “I’d like you to speak about this or that”. But I had no clue what I was doing. When she started to tell this story, I didn’t even know how I was going to continue to film – that’s how subjugated I felt by the potency of her reality. Only she could bring me into her story and only in the way she wanted. I was just there to tell her: “I’ll be an ear. Maybe you just needed someone here to hear you. Help me to capture your story as best I can.”
I think the scenes you’re referring to are moments where she reappropriates her image. She’s not the Delphine who presents as a wife or mother, nor the Delphine who is insulted on the streets of Cameroon, who gets called a prostitute. She’s laying claim to a Delphine that only she can communicate to us. I’m not able to say what might do her good or the path she should take. I’m just there to record this metamorphosis.
Every time she puts on her headscarf, every time she does her hair, her makeup, she is verbalising something and in doing so a form of violence leaves her. She is removing layers of insults, layers of things she’s had to endure, the labels that have been stuck to her, times at which she’s had to perform. Between the first and the last image of the film, something has changed – Delphine is no longer the same woman.
C.: Which questions the very notion of identity.
R.M.: People have perhaps taken one aspect of Delphine and redefined her according to a narrow viewpoint. But no one is just one person – it is impossible to be just one thing. I wanted to show the amplitudes contained in one sole person. I’m not saying that I was able to capture Delphine’s whole character because that’s not possible. It isn’t. We contain whole lives. And even after life, we can only be that which others remember of us. I’ve learned a great deal by grappling with all of these questions. Perhaps, through my own judgments, I too have contributed to who Delphine is today. I’m learning to understand that I can no longer continue to reproduce this way of thinking. After this experience with Delphine, whenever I am confronted with a situation, I always know there are things that will elude me.
C.: Speech is what’s at stake in your cinema, the motor of your films.
R.M. : Actually, I’m not someone who talks very much, but I talk a lot in my films. In my reality, I don’t need to say all of that, but in cinematic reality, it’s necessary to liberate these words in order to question a whole system. I think this is essential, at least for me. Everything we have today, or at least a great majority of it, comes from Africa. What is it that has never been exported from Africa? African thought, African words. These words must be sufficiently present in order to confront dominant ideology which has spent decades in an echo chamber. We need this confrontation. This ideology, this system needs to vary its diet. As long as this confrontation doesn’t take place, there will always be an imbalance. There’s an imbalance on the level of resources, of wealth, but the shift won’t come from there. It’s on the level of thought, through one’s relationship with the other, that equality must be re-established. The rest will follow.
C.: Your film is extremely confronting. Listening to Delphine whose words are so strong and experience so difficult, is a test in itself. As a viewer, it’s also about facing up to that experience, about enduring it.
R.M.: Because we’re busy looking for ways of not seeing reality. We might do charity work or give money to NGOs but these are still ways of not looking at reality. The truth would be found in questioning ourselves. But as long as our ideas, our thoughts, our internal selves aren’t deconstructed, society won’t ever be either. Society is only the reflection of what we are; it represents what it is formed by.
If, in order to deconstruct it and resolve its attendant questions, we hand things over to a politician or a charity, then we’ve got everything wrong. It means we don’t think ourselves part of the problem and yet we’re contributing to it in some way. My silence, my inactivity, my refusal to take a position, are adopted positions too.
C.: Your film also talks about inexhaustible and wide-ranging violence against women.
R.M. : Yes, the violence of a patriarchal Cameroonian society, and that of Europe. Colonisation contributed to sexual exportation, to the exoticisation of African women, and this hasn’t changed. Their exoticisation has taken different forms because the problem has not been resolved or questioned. Once again, we thought that this was a societal problem and not an individual one and yet we know that we bear the legacy of this society. What do we do with this?
C.: Delphine is always alone in this flat. There’s no off-screen, except the one we create with our imagination from the in-camera sounds and Delphine’s words. Is this house a kind of prison?
R.M.: As a Black person, you’re always imprisoned in some way. I find it difficult to film a Black person outside here. I know in advance what I’ll see: the subject performing what the outside has told them to be, meaning “the good Black” who is well-behaved and proper. As a filmmaker, it’s possible I would be performing if I were outside… Our true selves aren’t something other people want to see.
In her salon, Sabine says what she’s thinking. At home, Delphine says what she’s thinking. Outside these spaces, Sabine and Delphine perform the African women they’re expected to be. Sabine will never say anything to a white person who stares at her; she’ll never confront this stare as she does in the film. She knows that she is repressed by virtue of being Black. If I get stopped as I try and force open the doors of the metro, I will first and foremost be treated like a Black woman, not as an individual. That’s the difference.
That’s why, even though I’m here legally, when I leave home, I am conscious of the need to be obedient. I’ve been discriminated against but I haven’t been assaulted. I’m scared of being assaulted. That’s where the feeling of inequality lies, from being buoyed by a legacy of oppression. That’s why I can’t imagine filming outside. Maybe I’ll find a way of getting there, maybe society will evolve in such a way that I’ll feel able to film outside these closed doors. But it isn’t an aesthetic choice. I can only capture these words behind those doors.
C.: But these forms of self-presentation might also be accurate because they point at the truth of certain situations. And Delphine is sometimes performing, too.
R.M.: She is presenting herself as she’d like to be seen. She sits up straight, makes herself up, wants to glow. And it could be that the strength of the camera at that moment allows for this. The camera also allows her to think through the person she wants to be, the image she wants to give of herself.
C.: The film puts in front of our eyes that which we don’t want to see,
R.M. : It’s the final scene in which I say to her: “You sit like that” the way society would like her to be, the way society expects her to be… We have this pretty shot to end the film and reassure the viewer: yes, it’s been difficult but there’s a happy ending, there’s hope. But reality catches up because I bring Delphine back into view. This scene says everything. If I’d just had this beautiful shot, I would have been shirking my responsibilities by reassuring the viewer. And yet it’s by accepting who Delphine is that things can change. By confronting the problem, not running away from it.
C.: And you don’t have to seek permission.
R.M.: These are the words I use in my latest film, a collective film by three filmmakers, Prism, which will be released in December. In the film, I’m the one who speaks and that is exactly what I say, I don’t have to ask for permission to express myself in all my fragility. Whether you want to hear it or not, I just want to express it. And Delphine doesn’t have to ask for permission, either.
C.: I imagine the edit must have been particularly difficult?
R.M. : Yes, it was complicated. We did a first cut straight after we shot it and it was a disaster. At that time, I had just graduated, I was angry about what I had experienced and what I was experiencing in Belgium. And I was talking about my anger instead of telling Delphine’s story as she was narrating it to me. I was practicing a cinema of domination which is the exact thing I didn’t want to do.
This scared me and allowed me to understand that I had to work on myself as a director before working on this material. That’s what I did on my two previous films and it’s what allowed me to express what I wanted to express before going back to look at Delphine’s story without imposing my experience onto it.
The film’s editor and I were very conscious to not bring in our own projection and to render Delphine’s words in the most accurate way possible.
We also worked with Delphine because I wanted her to be involved in this stage of the film. In all, it is a very particular film.
If Delphine’s intention had been to tell the story to me alone, I was ready to accept that, I wouldn’t have shown the film. I needed her to recognise herself in it, to somehow validate the film because it’s such a personal story. As she watched the film, she talked to herself and she cried and she said to me, “You can show it”.
C.: How does Delphine feel about the film becoming public?
R.M.: With both Chez Jolie Coiffure and this film, it’s been very important that the films’ protagonists accompany me whenever I show the film.
This isn’t something I’ve planned out, rather something I’m experimenting with. I wanted us to carry their story together and I wanted to experience their direct relationship with the audience.
The protagonists of documentaries are not always seen, even though they are much better placed to defend their words than I am to serve them. And Delphine, during the Q&A, carries her story even further, she continues to own her words.
This was felt even more with Chez Jolie Coiffure and Sabine because she continued to confront the exoticizing gaze she talks about in the film and would say in the context of a public exchange: “Stop exoticizing us. We are beyond what you see, quite simply.”
What these protagonists say in the film does not end when the credits roll.
For the viewers, the fact that Delphine is there, that she is speaking, that she’s telling her story, allows them to continue this work of deconstruction, for that work not to end in the cinematic universe. Her reality is always there, alive, present. If action is to be taken, the time is now.
With thanks to Dimitra Bouras and Alain Esterzon (www.cinergie.be)